Coaching to Win

Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

Strategy, situations, and winning football games

During the final plays of NC State's last drive of the game on Thursday, as the clock waned and the cursed full moon became obscured by clouds, one of my good friends was coaching to win the game.

"If we score here, we should go for two," he said, leaning around several slack-jawed students in red to make eye contact. "If Doeren is coaching to win, we should go for two."

I had already heard a lot about coaching to win from this particular friend over our previous four years at NC State; especially so, given many of the bone-crushingly conservative calls made by ex-head coach Tom O'Brien. This season, as well, we had discussed a fair share of what we considered to be "conservative" calls from new HC Dave Doeren. Beginning with an continuing dissatisfaction we have had with the aimless nature of our special teams attempts when defending punts, the discussion had also included not going for two to tie Richmond at 21 two weekends ago, and a lingering issue we had expressed concerning running too many short-yardage plays and not stretching the field. At the end of the day, these were all stylistic issues that really hadn't affected game outcomes much, and so our dissatisfaction had stopped short of reevaluating an entire coaching strategy.

Now, though, I could see my friend had something greater on his mind. "Why not go for two," he said, waving his hands open as he always does when he becomes frustrated, "the odds are better if you do."

Last season, sometime around Sunday at 10 or 11 in the morning following the UNC game, we had come to the conclusion that coaching to win is an active pursuit that requires more than just motivation or effort. It is an entire system of being prepared to handle every situation that comes your way as a coach, knowing which calls put you in a better situation to win and which might end up costing you. The game of football has been played for twelve Saturdays (and Sundays, and Thursdays, and Mondays, and Fridays, and pretty much every day except Tuesday, which is why Tuesday sucks so bad) a year, for hundreds of years, by thousands of teams. Much of it relies on momentum and skill, but an equal part of it relies on chance, and in that chance there were numbers, we reckoned. Lots and lots of numbers, given the age of the sport. And not just numbers that could determine the percentages of success in given situations, but more useful numbers which would dictate to you as a coach what your best chances to win were in any given situation.

So, as five minutes rolled by on the game clock and a few drunken students nearby slurred epithets at Clemson, we began to talk numbers.

"Go for two here," my friend says, "and you have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. What happens if you don't get it? You're down 26-13, a 13 point difference, and you need 2 touchdowns. Go for it and get it? Down 26-15, an 11 point difference - and you still need 2 touchdowns."

I nodded, beginning to recognize where this was heading.

"But, if you can get the ball back and score again, now all of a sudden going for two the first time helps out a lot. If you got it the first time, you would be down 26-15, an 11 point difference - and this time, you could go for two AGAIN with a chance to draw within 3. If you didn't get the two the first time, going for it or not doesn't matter the second time; but if you DID get it, going for two the first time is now huge, because it puts you in a position to do it again and cut it to a field goal lead."

I thought about it. It made good sense. Sure, the odds were long, and considering the time left hugely unlikely, but, stranger things have happened in football. Besides, there seemed to be no negative impact from trying.

"Tom O'Brien wouldn't do it," I joked, "but Doeren might."

He didn't. We were disappointed.

I have long been a believer in active coaching - not calling plays based simply on habit, or tradition, or because that's what football coaches have always done - but calling them based on putting your team in the best possible position to win. As someone who has never played football at a competitive level, I have always recognized my shortcomings in understanding the physical skills needed to win individual matchups and have instead relied on advanced knowledge of strategy to benefit teams that way.  I worry about the situations, the strategies, the individual tactics, even, and leave it to the players to focus on themselves and making their own play better.  And now I was beginning to see that maybe it wasn't Tom O'Brien that was the issue when it came to radical and levels-deep strategy like that which my friend had just suggested. It was instead the entire culture and tradition of football coaching. Dave Doeren kicked the extra point not because he was conceding defeat - he tried an onside kick the next play that almost worked. He kicked it (for the same reason he didn't try a two-point conversion against Richmond) because coaches don't like to leave points on the board by doing something radical. They don't think several plays or series ahead, because they condition themselves to focus on the present in each and every situation they face. They don't like going against what football coaches have done for hundreds of years, because if they do and it doesn't work then they will be criticized. And can you blame them? They have all that tradition staring at them creepily from the proverbial walls of a history-of-football haunted house. (THERE - DID YOU SEE THAT? BEAR BRYANT'S EYES JUST MOVED I SWEAR!)

It is a little thing. It probably would never have affected the outcome of the game. But little things add up. And there are thousands of these little gimmicks. Tiny things that coaches have never even considered having to ever face, but which occur every weekend from Friday to Sunday.  The greatest thing about football is the number of strange situations and new happenings it can give the viewer every week without becoming repetitive. The only way you can pick them up is to survey as much of the available material as you can. It is enough to drive a head football coach, with so much else on his mind, insane. Maybe, then, the perspective of outsiders, who have never played or coached advanced football, who have not been through the process of homogenization that the football culture brings, is actually a very good thing for new ideas. I decided this a long time ago, and I take great joy in discovering new situations of advanced strategy and discussing them with my similar friends, sharing these "little gimmicks" because they all add up to winning football games at some point or another, and that is the big point, isn't it? Coaching not for the sake of coaching, but instead coaching to win.

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As readers of the blog and fellow sports fans, I'm sure all of you have observed similar situations in the past which you may have ignored or found few who would actually listen to you ramble about them. In the spirit of the Glorious Cause of Advancing Football Knowledge, I invite all of you to Fanpost about your observations, in the past, this weekend, or as you notice them in the future, for us all to read and enjoy. Go Pack!

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